Luke on the Future of Women's Ministry

Luke on the Future of Women's Ministry

Luke's Gospel in particular is concerned about the special role of women. Although Christ refused to be a social reformer in this as in other fields, many of his words and actions show that woman's participation in the ministry would not be contrary to his mind.

In this I would like to proceed beyond rigid argumentation and approach the Gospel of Luke in a reflective mood. I should like to penetrate into its core; listen attentively to what it says by implication as well as by express statement; capture intuitively the deeper insights of the inspired message.

Mary of Magdala

Let us turn to St Luke's Gospel and study the history of Mary of Magdala. She had led a sinful life but had been converted by Jesus. 'Mary, known as Mary of Magdala, from whom seven devils had come out' (Luke 8, 2). Luke narrates about her that she was among the women who accompanied Jesus on his apostolic tours (Luke 8, 1-3); that with other disciples she watched the crucifixion of Jesus and helped at his burial (Luke 23, 49. 55-56); that she was among the first to learn about the resurrection on Easter morning (Luke 24, 1-11). In the Acts of the Apostles Luke makes Peter express the following requirement for a person to fit into the apostolic team: 'One of us who bore us company all the while we had the Lord Jesus with us, coming and going, from John's ministry of baptism until the day he was taken up from us - one of those must join us now as a witness to his resurrection' (Acts 1, 21-22). If we go by this requirement Mary of Magdala could have qualified, as well as many other persons who did not belong to the original Twelve. Mary witnessed Jesus' public ministry, his passion and resurrection. It may be objected that she was not present at the Last Supper. But neither was Matthias who was eventually chosen to take Judas's place.

Mary of Magdala could not have taken up the position of an Apostle for the social reasons I have explained before. But not because she did not fulfill the requirements of the Gospel. I believe that especially in St Luke's gospel we have here a vision of possibilities that goes much beyond the social limitations of the time. Recall the episode of the sinful woman who weeps at Jesus' feet as he reclines in a Pharisee's house (Luke> 7, 36-50). She may historically have been Mary of Magdala; in Luke's eyes she certainly is the same kind of person (see the connection with 8, 1-3). About her Jesus says:

'You see this woman?
I came to your house:
you provided no water for my feet;
but this woman has made my feet wet with her tears
and wiped then with her hair.
You gave me no kiss;
but she has been kissing my feet ever since I came in.
You did not anoint my head with oil;
but she has anointed my feet with myrrh.'

It is as if Jesus is speaking to us across the centuries. 'What is all this discussion,' he might say, 'about women in the ministry? What makes you think I would turn her away from the sanctuary or from my altar? Have I not always stressed the real thing rather than accidentals? When I was in the house of Simon the Pharisee, did I not praise the sinful woman for exercising the ministry of the footwashing? It was not her status, nor her previous sins, but her love that counted in my eyes. By her kiss of welcome, by washing my feet, by her gift of ointment, it was she who was my minister at that moment more than all the men who sat around. Would I refuse any woman to be my minister who could serve my Body, the Church, in the same way: by breaking the bread, by pouring the water of baptism or anointing the sick? Don't you think I am happy that women in your time are at last given that position in society that is rightly theirs? Would I not recognise the real contribution a woman priest can make in the new world you are living in now?'.

At this point I may have lost credibility. Is it correct to read Scripture in this way? Do the passages on Mary of Magdala intend to give a vision of new ministries or is such an interpretation nothing more than wishful thinking? To reply adequately I will have to say a little more about Luke's theology. I should like to demonstrate the following points:

This seems a rather long path to travel. It is well worth the trouble. If Luke teaches, as I will show to be the case, that we should expect new developments in the Church, also regarding the ministry; and if Luke himself in this context points to the role of women, may we choose to disregard this message? It would seem that, under inspiration, Luke is precisely speaking about the question that is now before us: can there be in the Church a new participation of women in the ministry, not explicitly foreseen in the Gospel? Luke's answer would be a categorical 'Yes'.

No room for the Church?

After the resurrection of Jesus it took the apostolic community quite some time to realise that a new era had begun, the era of the Church.

Many among the earlier christians were convinced that the second coming of Jesus would occur very soon. Jesus' cryptic saying: 'Some of those standing here will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God come in power' (Mark 9, 1) was interpreted as implying that the end of the world would come within a few years. From what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in 51 A.D. we know that he expected that he himself and most of his christians would be alive when Christ was to come (I Thessalonians 4, 15). The same is implied in his letter to the Corinthians of 57 A.D. (1 Corinthians 15, 51). The early christians were so time-conscious about the final salvation which Jesus' second coming would bring that Paul could write: 'Salvation is nearer now than when you first believed' (Romans 13, 11).

It is not difficult to see that such high-strung expectations had undesirable consequences for the christian's life. Some new converts at Thessalonica had stopped working altogether and were idly waiting for the last day. Paul disapproved of this (2 Thessalonians 2, 6) and warned against exaggerated oracles foretelling the imminence of the Lord's Day (2 Thessalonians 2, 2). Some felt deceived and disappointed when Christ did not come as soon as they had anticipated: 'Where now is the promise of his coming?' St Peter had to answer this question at length (2 Peter 3, 3-10).

Christians whose life is dominated by the belief that the end of the universe can come any day, are no longer interested in building up their own world. They are literally like people looking up into the sky. They forget that they have a job to do on earth. Luke made it his concern to correct such a mistaken attitude. At the ascension scene he reports the remark, 'Men of Galilee, why stand there looking up into the sky? This Jesus - will come in the same way as you have seen him go' (Acts 1, 11). In other words, he will come by himself, through his own power, at his own convenient time. Don't waste your time fretting about when and how he comes. Get down to doing the job Christ expects of you.

In his Gospel, Luke frequently discredits exaggerated preoccupation with Christ's second coming. Whenever the question of the date of Christ's coming is mentioned, Luke points to the task that has to be done first. He records that, at Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, some people thought that the kingdom of heaven would now come immediately (Luke> 19, 11). Jesus counters this by giving the parable of the talents: the end will not come immediately, but the entrusted responsibility should be taken in hand at once (Luke 19, 12-27). Persecutions and upheavals, even the destruction of Jerusalem, do not mean that the end will come immediately (Luke 12, 7). When the apostles inquire about the date of the last things, Jesus is reported to give a stern answer. 'It is not for you to know about dates and times.' Instead the apostles should devote their energies to bearing witness for him 'to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1, 6-8). Jesus' cryptic saying about the coming of the kingdom even during the first generation is interpreted by Luke with reference to another saying of Jesus: 'You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. There will be no saying, "look, here it is!" or "There it is!" for in fact the kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17, 20-21).

The Church and the Spirit

Before the end of time could come, Christ wanted there to be an era of the Church. Luke thought this so important that he devoted a whole book to it, the Acts of the Apostles. For him it was a fundamental mistake to identify christian history with the life of Jesus. Because after Jesus' redemptive work God continued to act through the Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles have rightly been called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. For, starting from Jesus' promise of the Spirit in the first chapter and the account of Pentecost in the second, Luke shows throughout the Acts how the Holy Spirit made Jesus' followers into a world Church.

By recognising the independent role of the Church, Luke drew attention to a theological fact of paramount importance. It was the fact that Jesus himself had not decided about everything that should be done in his Church. New and unexpected developments would take place among Jesus' followers. These new developments, too, have a divine origin. They are brought about by the Holy Spirit from within the Church. They should be accepted with equal readiness as the explicit rulings of Jesus himself. Of course, there is no contradiction between what Jesus said and did and the new directives given by the Spirit. When writing his Gospel, Luke shows that Jesus' words and actions contained a deeper dimension, a 'vision', an inner dynamism that could find expression in such far-reaching decisions taken by the later Church body.

Let me work out one example. Luke narrates in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Church came to accept non-Jews into their community. The baptism of the household of Cornelius was truly a new beginning here. Previously, non-Jews had only been admitted if they were Jewish proselytes who had been circumcised. Cornelius and his household were Romans who became Christians without first being made imitation-Jews by circumcision. Luke stresses that this was God's doing. Cornelius was urged by an angel to send for Peter (Acts 10, 1-8). Peter was warned through a vision not to consider anything profane that God counts clean (Acts 10, 1-16). Finally, when Peter preached the Gospel of Jesus, Cornelius and his family were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10, 17-44). It was this clear manifestation of the Holy Spirit that convinced Peter most of all that pagans can become Christians without an intermediate stage of circumcision (Acts 10, 45-48). Luke narrates how Peter had to justify this decision in the Jerusalem Church (Acts 11, 1-18) and how it led to the first Council of the Church which formally declared that non-Jews could be admitted to the Church without requiring them to undergo circumcision or keep Mosaic law (Acts 15, 1-12).

Admitting non-Jews without requiring circumcision was a momentous decision that had not been taken by Jesus but by the Church. It went far beyond what Jesus said. In a way it was a departure from Jesus' own practice. This is clear from the very discussion in the early Church, where the matter was decided not with reference to rulings of Jesus, but by a recognition of the will of the Spirit. Secondly, we know from the Gospels that Jesus restricted his own ministry explicitly to the Jews. 'Do not take the road to gentile lands, and do not enter any Samaritan town. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (Matthew 10, 5). 'I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to them alone' (Mt 15, 24). We may be sure that in the discussion as to whether non-Jews could be admitted as they were (without circumcision; cf Acts 15, 1), some of the Jewish christians will have quoted these sayings of Jesus. Their narrow interpretation of Jesus' words will have stressed the need of first becoming a Jew, before being able to benefit from Jesus' redemption. It was necessary therefore for the Early Christians to become somewhat detached from a too literal adherence to Jesus' words. They had to learn that to understand Jesus' mind we should not limit ourselves to his external sayings and deeds alone. We should grasp above all the prophetic dimension in Jesus' life which went far beyond his immediate practice.

If we read the Gospel of St Luke in this light, we see how he handles this value of inner vision and prophetic dimension. Luke reflects on Jesus' attitude towards Samaritans, people considered heretics and religious outcasts by the Jews. Jesus refused to curse the Samaritan village which failed to give him accommodation (Luke 10, 29-37). He said about the centurion at Capernaum, 'I tell you, nowhere, even in Israel, have I found faith like this' (Luke 7,9). In such incidents Luke rightly sees an attitude of Jesus towards non-Jews that transcends Mosaic law and that embraces a vision of the Church in which Samaritans and Romans can feel at home as much as the Jews.

Ministry and the Spirit

Stressing new forms of ministry is another of Luke's explicit aims. There is evidence to show that the question of 'apostolic' succession was not so easily solved in the early Church. The twelve apostles who had been chosen by Christ himself and who had been personally instructed by him were accorded such an exceptional respect and authority that it looked as if no one else could take their place. Yet this was essential for the continued existence and spread of the Church. However privileged a position the twelve occupied, their task had to be continued by persons who had not been directly chosen by Christ himself, who were converts themselves and who might come from a non-Jewish background.

When writing the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tackles this problem head on. In the very first chapter he narrates how Matthias was chosen to replace Judas. 'He was assigned a place among the twelve apostles' (Acts 1, 26). Complaints from the Greek-speaking christians at Jerusalem that they were being neglected led to the appointment of seven deacons (Acts 6, 1-6). Although the original purpose of this diaconate focussed more on material ministration, it is clear from the accounts of two of them - Stephen and Philip - that they were doing the same work as the apostles as far as preaching the Gospel is concerned. But they could not give the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands. A complete breakthrough took place at Antioch when the congregation there under the guidance of the Holy Spirit laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them on a missionary tour (Acts 14, 1-3). Their official status was confirmed in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15, 12). This opened the way to many others being drawn into the ministry, such as Timothy from Lystra, Titus from Galatia, Apollos from Alexandria, Epaphras from Colossae, and many others.

In harmony with his technique of seeing a future vision in Jesus' actions, Luke searched the life of Jesus to find confirmation for this development in the Church. He found it in the fact that Jesus sent out more disciples than only the twelve. In his Gospel Luke makes most of this event. After reporting how Jesus sent out 'the twelve' in a rather short passage (Luke 9, 1-6), he recounts at length how Jesus sent out 'seventy-two others' who are given the same instructions as the apostles (Luke 10, 1-24). Just as twelve stands for the twelve tribes of Israel, so seventy-two denotes all the nations of the earth according to the Jewish symbolism of the time. It is to the seventy-two disciples that Jesus says 'Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me' (Luke 10, 16). It is very likely that the sending out of the 'other' disciples was a relatively minor occurrence in the life of Jesus. It was probably almost forgotten and certainly overshadowed by the special attention Jesus lavished on the twelve. But for St Luke this small incident had prophetic value as it pointed to what was to happen in the later Church. It was not against the mind of Jesus that the work of the twelve was to be taken over by the seventy-two of all the nations.

Focus on women in Luke's Gospel

All four Gospels affirm that women played a special part in Jesus' life. It was noted particularly in Luke's Gospel. Luke records episodes not found in the other Gospel accounts. He introduces Elizabeth (Luke 1, 5-45), the prophetess Anna (Luke 2, 36-38), the widow of Naim (Luke 7, 11-17), the women who ministered unto Jesus (Luke 8, 1-3), the woman who was bent over (Luke 13, 38-42) and the weeping women of Jerusalem (Luke 23, 27-31). Luke preserved two special parables involving women: the housewife who lost a drachma (Luke 15, 8-10) and the tenacious widow (Luke 18, 1-8). Women also mentioned in the other Gospels, receive special focus with Luke: Mary Magdalene (Luke 7, 36-50), Mary and Martha (Luke 10, 38-42) and the poor widow who offered two coins in the temple (Luke 21, 1-4). Jesus' relationship to women is an outspoken theme of this Gospel.

Why did Luke focus attention on the role played by women in Jesus' life? Obviously here, as in the other cases, Luke acted in response to a need in the early Church. In many communities women played a leading role. Apollos' conversion at Ephesus was as much due to Priscilla as to Aquila (Acts 18, 18-26). In Corinth it was Chloë who sent messengers to Paul to inform him about problems in the Church (1 Cor 1, 11). The community of Cenchreae had a lady deacon, 'Phoebe our fellow-christian' (Rom 16, 1-2). At Philippi, where Luke worked a long time in the apostolate, we find mention of three prominent ladies: Lydia, who ran a prosperous business in purple dresses and in whose house the local community met (Acts 16, 14-15); Euodia and Syntyche about whom Paul could say 'these women who shared my struggles in the cause of the Gospel' (Phil 4, 2-3). It is obvious that these women and others whose names have not been recorded, were concerned about their own specific role in the christian community.

When recalling incidents of Jesus' life involving women, Luke has a very rich message to give. In his view women are equal recipients of Jesus' grace. Like men, women too should be converted (Mary Magdalene), listen to Jesus' word (Mary and Martha), pray with perseverance (the tenacious widow), and share in his sufferings and cross (<I>Luke</I> 23, 49). The role of being a mother, with its sorrows and joys, is reflected on in persons such as the widow of Naim, Elizabeth and Our Lady. Jesus takes examples from women's everyday tasks: drawing water from the well, grinding corn with the millstones, sweeping the house, mixing leaven through the dough, and preparing food for guests. Jesus had observed such activities and invested some of them with profound symbolic meaning. In these and many other ways Luke's passages on women yield an unexpectedly rich treasury of pointers and reflections.

Did St Luke however advert to the ministry of women? Did he, in presenting these words and deeds of Jesus, want to reflect on women's involvement in the apostolate? Does St Luke's Gospel contain a 'vision' of how women could be given a more responsible role within the christian community?

A future ministry of women

It is in the light of this question that certain other passages in Luke's Gospel receive a profound significance. Luke narrates how women too accompanied Jesus in his apostolic mission.

'Jesus went journeying from town to town and village to village, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him were the Twelve and a number of women who had been set free from evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, known as Mary of Magdala, from whom seven devils had come out, Joanna, the wife of Chusa, a steward of Herod's, Susanna, and many others. These women provided for them out of their own resources' (Luke 8, 1-3).

Luke realised that, given the social status of women in those days, it was impossible for Jesus to draw them into the apostolic team. In the early Church as Luke knew it, a truly equal partnership of women in the ministry was also excluded, on sociological grounds. But it is certain that Luke, who is the only evangelist to recount this aspect of Jesus' ministry, records the above incident because he saw it had prophetic value. If women were so closely associated with Jesus on his apostolic tours, this would certainly imply for Luke the possibility of a much greater participation of women in the era of the Church. If ever the Church were to call on a woman to take up the full ministry of a Barnabas or a Paul, Luke would not have been surprised. He would have seen an anticipation of this new development in the small band of women who shared all they had with Jesus and his apostles.

And what about Anna, the prophetess? Again, Luke is the only evangelist to make mention of her. According to his description, she was a very mature person who lived alone as a widow 'to the age of eighty-four'. Through this number, seven times twelve, she represents completeness in the faith, a christian come of age. She is a person totally dedicated to God. 'She never left the temple, but worshipped day and night, fasting and praying.' Having met Jesus, she becomes a witness to him. 'She talked about the child to all who were looking for the liberation of Jerusalem' (Luke 2, 36-38).

Why did Luke present this picture of Anna, the mature and dedicated woman, the prophetess who preached about Jesus? Is it not once more because in her he saw a vision of things to come? In the witness of this woman Luke foresaw an apostolic task meant for women that could not be realised as yet in his own times. But isn't this what inspiration is about? Wasn't this exactly Luke's constant preoccupation, namely, to show that not all decisions had been taken in Jesus' life, that completely new developments were possible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

This brings us to the role Our Lady plays in Luke's Gospel. As soon as Mary heard of her own election to be the mother of the 'Son of God,' she also received a commission. She was told by Gabriel that Elizabeth had conceived (Luke 1, 35-36). Mary set out on her mission. Entering Zechariah's house, she greeted Elizabeth. 'When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit' (Luke 1, 41).

Bringing the Holy Spirit was unmistakably an apostolic prerogative. When the deacon Philip preached in Samaria, he could baptise. He could not give the Spirit. Peter and John had to come from Jerusalem to impart the Holy Spirit by the imposition of hands (Acts 8, 14-17). The converts in Ephesus lacked the Holy Spirit until Paul came and imposed hands on them (Acts 19, 6). Sometimes it was enough for the apostle to enter a house and speak the word of the Lord: as when Peter entered Cornelius's house and preached about Jesus. 'Peter was still speaking when the Holy Spirit came upon all who were listening to the message' (Acts 10, 44). This was that baptism of the Holy Spirit that the Early Christians were so conscious of. Jesus himself had said at his ascension, 'Wait for the promise made by my Father, about which you have heard me speak: John, as you know, baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit' (Acts 1, 4-5).

It was the distinctive sign of Jesus' own ministry. In the words of John the Baptist, 'I baptise you with water... He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire' (Luke 3, 16).

John Wijngaards



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